There are different vanilla beans qualities. Quality does not depend on origin but on the quality of the bean and its moisture content.
During the sun and shadow drying phases, each bean will not progress in the same way. Some will be dryer than others.
It is after sorting and maturing phases, the final quality of the bean will be defined. There are three major quality categories: cuts, red vanilla, and black vanilla that we also call Gourmet vanilla.
This quality is defined by short vanilla beans (8-10cm) with a low vanillin content, by sorting phase waste (broken or flabby beans) or vanilla beans picked up immature.
They are mainly dedicated to American market, whose the legislation varies from the European one, and for which the cost is often more important than quality. Their moisture content is about 15%.
Red vanilla or extraction vanilla is used by industrials who will extract and transform it in extracts or natural aroma. On the contrary to Gourmet market, industrials look for a dryer product in order to have more substance per kilo to extract.
We have to distinguish two markets for red vanilla:
- The European market which looks for quality and a good vanillin content. The product get a moisture content between 20 to 25%, maximum 27%. It is recognizable thanks to some red filaments on the bean and to a reddish colour.
- The American market looks for a lower quality and moisture content, inferior to 20%, in order to get a maximum of product per kilo to extract. Their colour is red, woody.
The production of these qualities is more important, and is sold in big quantities. It has a lower cost than vanilla beans dedicated to Gourmet market. It is also with red vanilla that vanilla powder are made.
Warning ! Some companies sell red vanilla « Europe » as Gourmet vanilla. In order to compare pricing done by different suppliers, you need to compare apple with apple and check moisture content declared by each supplier.
Cuts and red vanilla represents between 85 and 90% of a crop in Madagascar.
Black vanilla or Gourmet vanilla beans
Black vanilla is easily recognizable from others thanks its moisture content. The moisture makes the bean supple and fleshy. More the moisture rate is high, easier will be the bean to split and to work with.
Tahiti vanilla is the best example, this origin presents the highest moisture content of all vanilla origins. Except its perfume, you will recognize the Tahiti vanilla bean which is big, wide, extremely supple and sensual.
Gourmet vanilla from Planifolia specie (the most common: Madagascar, Reunion, Comoros, Uganda…) is split in two categories:
- Black vanilla (split or non- split) with a moisture content between 30 and 38%
- T4 or TK vanilla with a moisture content between 27 and 30%
Black vanilla is the most expensive, it is the one used by Chefs. Supple and fleshy, it is simple to split. It coat is fully black, chocolate colour, without any default or colour variation.
TK vanilla bean is black, chocolate colour and can have few red filaments. It is appreciated by packagers, which sell the product by unit. Those beans are less humid, lighter and they will have the advantage to be more numerous per kilo.
Both qualities represent 10 to 15% of a crop in Madagascar. They are products which request a high expertise and caring. If they are too humid, they are more sensitive to mould, and fermentation.
Identify a black vanilla from a red one needs to be trained. It is sometimes possible you buy red vanilla, thinking it is black one!
A bean too fleshy, can hide a too high moisture content. In this case it means you buy lot of water with a chance of mould at the end.
In order to make sure about the quality of the vanilla you buy, you can ask your supplier to provide you an analytical sheet with vanillin and moisture contents of the batch. This analysis be a good indication regarding quality.